[youtube=9baDQ16kQUQ][youtube=1HTwYZjFzBo] Our first day in Venezuela gave us a few surprises. Firstly the exchange rate makes this a very expensive country. Secondly Maracaibo was full of polished tall buildings, big American cars, very nicely dressed people and all of the American chains you could think of. We’d heard that Venezuela was a dodgy place and Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s famously outspoken president was a US hater. The area we stayed in Maracaibo you could have been forgiven for thinking you were in the US. We made our way into the old centre and found a more run down Maracaibo and South Americas largest lake, Lago Maracaibo. The old town was crumbling away, covered in graffiti and had its fair share of derelict American cars.
We managed to work out a way to make this country cheaper for us, use the black market! By exchanging US dollars on the black market we were able to get three times more Venezuelan bolivars than from the ATM. So it looked like we would be visiting the money changers hanging around the bus stations. With a limited supply of US currency, we did wonder how we would make it around this country without spending a fortune.
We saw on our first day why maybe Venezuela has the reputation it does. As we had finished with the old town we started to head to the bus station. Coming to the end of the day the sun started to set. We didn’t really want to be wandering around during the night so we started to ask directions to ensure we where heading in the right direction. During the day we found Venezuelans to be extremely friendly and helpful. As nightfall came, the people of Maracaibo walked faster with their heads down and wouldn’t stop to tell us directions. It was like the light really had been switched off! We found our way to the bus station and waited for our bus to Merida.
Merida is Venezuela’s (probably the continent’s) adventure capital. Set in the Andes just about any adventure sport possible is available here. As we had already ticked so many off the ‘adventure list’ it was quite easy to choose the activities we wanted to do. Our first port of call would be to get back into the mountains. We found an operator offering cheap altitude mountain bike trips. So we travelled by jeep into Parque Nacional Sierra la Culata. It was great to be back in the mountains again. We spent the day cycling up rough trails at altitude. We left the bikes to start a mini trek further into the mountains uncovering more of the Andean scenery that I’ve come to love. The trail down was as challenging as the ride up. Balance, precision and a good pair of lungs!
On our arrival we spied that there were two-day rafting trips with rapids up to class V. We hopped on the next available trip. The lodge was a few hours’ drive away but we had the pleasure of driving through Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada. On arrival at the lodge we were impressed with its facilities - good rooms, a climbing wall and a mini canopy circuit over the river! After a quick snack we all got to try out the canopy lines and then headed down to the river to spend the afternoon on the water. This was to be a practice run in the quieter waters downstream. It seemed the water was running just right because these so called class III’s were lively! We also stopped in a small cove where we all thought our trip had ended. Not quite… the guides led the group up the edge of the rocky riverbank. We were all to jump off the 5m rock and back into the water. I’ll just say some more fears were conquered! The rafting continued and the river definitely came up with the goods. As our attention turned to the next day we knew it was going to be a good one!
For the second day we started the morning further up the river and amongst the higher class rapids. For another day the river didn’t disappoint, probably the best rapids I’ve ever rafted. We even ran the river to the very bottom, so was a full day!
Our journey back saw us stopping in some of the villages on the way through Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada. Our driver lived in one of these villages and gave a little insight into life there and some of the more interesting architecture, including an amazing stone chapel in San Rafael. Of course the conversation with the driver turned to Chavez! If you speak to anyone in this country for more than four minutes, the conversation ends up on the topic of their illustrious leader - I’m really not joking! The general feeling is that the public have lost faith in him, saying he was once a friend but now is just power mad. Everyone we spoke to seemed to agree with his socialist ways, they say that is what is needed for this whole continent. But they are just fed up with his power-mad ways, the corruption and say he has lost sight of where he came from (basically he was a peasant).
Another hot topic with the more educated people we have met is that Venezuela is a rich country. It has become rich in the last one hundred years, since the discovery of oil. Before that time it was the second poorest South American country after Bolivia. Essentially we have been told that ‘Venezuela’s main problem is its people. They are basically peasants with cars’. An interesting slant on things….
We used a rest day to wander around Merida, step back and have a look at its interesting graffiti. So far there has been plenty to see in the places we had been, mostly directed at the disgust of Chavez and the US! With the graffiti usually comes the Chavez propaganda machine. Posters, flags, banners etc are as common as the graffiti, all telling the population to vote yes at the next election and essentially to surrender more rights back to him - something they say he’ll just do whatever happens!
Merida is the sort of place you could easily spend two or three weeks. Our main problem has become money - we have just changed our last US currency and soon we will be using the official rate again.
We spent our last day in Mérida canyoning. Something I had wanted to do since Chile. We started with a jeep ride followed by a thirty-minute trek into the forest. As we arrived at the river’s edge, we put on wetsuits and safety equipment. The group then started to follow the river and walk through the rapids. The river twisted and turned through heavily bouldered sections, making walking a challenge. As it continued we found ourselves slipping down rock slides and arriving at our first waterfall. In essence, we attached ourselves to a climbing rope and abseiled down the waterfall, through the stinging, gushing water to the slash pool below. As we continued we found ourselves sliding down larger rocks and larger more powerful waterfalls. For me, the most ridiculous part was when we left the river, walked over a rock ridge and were told to jump. With a height of around four metres the drop looked high enough but with the added effect of having to jump into a rock crevasse that was only one metre wide at the root, I had to ask ‘You’ve got to be kidding me?!’ No they weren’t and yes it was the only way through. So jumping was the only way. I stared, stuttered and jumped. Just the once was one enough! We ended the trip with a 20m waterfall abseil. All in all this has to be one of the most ridiculous activities I have ever participated in (to see a clip ). Thoughts of ‘Should this allowed?!’ were ringing around the heads of the whole group. Yet again another memorable experience.
We found ourselves with no time left in Mérida and very limited funds. We boarded a night bus for Maracay and left behind many more trips that caught our attention and the Andes. We had travelled from the very start of this majestic range and would now find ourselves travelling to the very tip. As a major draw the Andes have never disappointed. They have given us amazing scenery and uncountable, unforgettable adventures. As the bus rolled out of the Mérida terminal, Pico Bolivar’s snowcapped peak glistened in the evening sun. It was hard not to feel sad knowing that this was our last visit to this mesmerising cordillera.
After arrival in Maracay we transferred to Parque Nacional Henri Pittier on board one of South America’s treats - an old, custom-painted bus complete with mega-blasted reggaeton (reggae come rap). We arrived back on the Caribbean coast with our ears ringing. We spent a few days eating fresh seafood and relaxing on thinly populated palm-lined Caribbean beaches. We had finally found our idyllic Caribbean destination. Although it was a slice of paradise, South America’s litter problem was present, removing the shine slightly. The climate had become ridiculously hot again - even the Venezuelan Andes were warmer. It seems that, countrywide, Venezuela is a hot, hot place… the hottest country I know of!!
To combat our money woes we booked flights from nearby Caracas to the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago. Although going sooner than we had planned, the visit would allow us to arm ourselves with more US dollars to return to Venezuela with.
On arrival in Caracas we soon saw why others had advised against a visit. Statistics now confirm Caracas as South America’s most dangerous city. Get in and get out is my recommendation and that’s exactly what we did.
Full Maracaibo Photos on Flickr
Full Merida Photos on Flickr
Full Marakay Photos on Flickr
Full Puerto Colombia Photos on Flickr
Full Caracus Photos on Flickr
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